Replace Thyself

Essentially, one prepares to turn over the job as one is learning the job.

Last updated on January 27th, 2020 at 06:54 pm

A member of recently entered the workforce at entry level and has posed a question:

How would I know where I would be least replacable, especially as a young person with few (if any) highly developed skills? (Sic)

The question stems from earlier discussions about the desirability of being irreplaceable in one’s employment, to ensure that one’s employer will have reason to retain one’s employment in a recession economy.

However, irreplaceability is rarely a solution for someone who remains competitive.

Beware That Irreplaceability

In the workplace, it is a strategic mistake to consider oneself irreplaceable or to implement measures designed to cause oneself to be irreplaceable (this is sometimes known as holding the job hostage), because the only opinion that counts regarding replaceability is the opinion of those paying the bills. One may consider oneself irreplaceable ’til the cows come home, and still be replaced at the drop of [someone else’s] hat when it is economically advantageous to do so. It is the bill-payers who determine when it is.

Or the other situation occurs wherein the employee is denied other opportunities for growth because he/she is “irreplaceable” in the current job. Essentially the employee is held back because no one else can perform that job.

Management’s Role

From a management perspective, employees are resources to be utilized to accomplish pre-determined objectives; and those objectives include an implied “at lowest cost.” An irreplaceable employee is a human resource that is monopolized, presenting higher costs resulting from that monopoly, thereby making it somewhat more costly to accomplish those objectives. As with any other resource, management will attempt to source manpower from a competitive environment in an effort to keep costs low; meaning in the human resource category, a replaceable pool of employees.  That competitive environment first and foremost contributes to holding down costs. This holding down cost by leveraging a competitive environment is one of management’s primary roles.

This is why experienced managers will not be coerced or suborned by an employee holding the job hostage (either explicitly or implicitly); if they (i.e., the managers) find themselves in that position, they will incur higher costs, indicating they haven’t performed their role correctly.

On occasion when confronted with an ultimatum by an employee who consider himself/herself irreplaceable (either in the job or in the moment), I chose the “or else” option, because my [manager’s] view extended beyond the immediate situation, and I knew it was my responsibility to prevent/avoid the larger problem of higher costs.

In other words, it was my job as a manager to ensure that the firm never got to that place where someone was considered irreplaceable.

Employment Policy

In addition, the de facto employment policy in many firms is to assign “…the best-qualified available candidate for the job.” (Emphasis added.)

“Available,” which irreplaceable employees are not. Irreplaceable candidates cannot move to new opportunities because of their irreplaceability in the current job.

What’s An Employee To Do?

In a phrase: solve management’s problem of having a replaceable pool of employees.

Or, as stated at Electronic Data Systems (EDS): “replace yourself.”

The old EDS (when it was Ross Perot’s company) was generally considered very well managed and employed only top performers. The management team had a mantra regarding their jobs: “my job is to replace myself.” This mantra derived from an underpinning philosophy that the firm was to always be effective and efficient in a changing competitive business environment. Such a philosophy can only be realized in fact if the management and individual performers continually improve themselves and make themselves available so that each could advance to new and greater responsibilities, and others could realize new opportunities following in their wake.

As a result of implementing this philosophy in practice, EDS management and staff changed jobs on a regular basis. This fluidity of job assignment over time, built depth and breadth into the workforce on an individual basis and EDS corporate capability on an aggregate basis, and resulted in a nimble organization that could “reach into” its manpower pool to find qualified talent to meet unfolding opportunities.

Replace Thyself In Practice

Performing one’s job to standard is always Job One, and the primary focus of one’s efforts should be to learn to perform to standard consistently day in and day out. But concurrent with Job One is Job Two, which is the effort necessary to turn over the job to a replacement.

Job Two typically includes the following:

  1. Automating manual work processes using available or obtainable tools, such as using automated task reminders, automated emailings, automated status reporting, common electronic information structures, etc.
  2. Identifying (and documenting) those parts of the job that can be assigned to other areas of the firm or other employees.
  3. Documenting one’s job in the form of a project plan, “job architecture,” and task instructions to the replacement. This is known as a “Turnover File.”
  4. Training replacements in whole or in part. That is, “backing up the job.”

Essentially, one prepares to turn over the job as one is learning the job. From this perspective, one is intending to replace oneself from the first day on the job. In economic terms, this is known as a future orientation. When the above items are complete, one is “available” for a new opportunity.

The upshot is that new opportunities only come to those that are available to pursue them, and it is with those new opportunities that we accomplish career growth.

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